The Spanish town that is sinking into the earth

Illegal work to create network of caves in Navalcarnero will cost “millions” to repair

The latest hole to appear in Navalcarnero.
The latest hole to appear in Navalcarnero.

The small town of Navalcarnero, around 30 kilometers southwest of Madrid, is in danger of disappearing into the earth, according to its mayor. José Luis Adell, of the Socialist Party, blames his predecessor for building a two-kilometer-long series of multi-layered subterranean galleries that runs directly under the center of the community. The caves, supposedly part of a network of underground storage areas used by local farmers more than three centuries ago, were in fact constructed between 2004 and 2011 by the previous administration without any prior geological surveys or licenses.

The new mayor says the total cost of the cave project eventually amounted to more than €200 million

“Navalcarnero is sinking,” said Adell last week after the ground collapsed in a central square, creating a one meter-wide and three-meter-deep hole next to a large bronze statue and damaging nearby buildings. “The situation is very serious: one day we could see a tragedy here.”

“What has happened here could happen above any of the areas where the caves have been built,” says Adell.

The cave where the collapse took place is around 40 square meters, and belonged to a home whose owners died in testate, meaning the property was ceded to the local council. In 2006 it eventually abandoned plans to link it to the other underground storage areas after a number of other holes opened up. Adell says the total cost of the project eventually amounted to more than €200 million.

Pipes exposed by the caving in of the tunnel.
Pipes exposed by the caving in of the tunnel.

“Over the years, the ground has subsided, because the council just filled in holes with sand, the weight of which brought down the roof of the cave underneath,” says Juan Benito, president of the local residents’ association.

The courts ordered work on the cave complex to cease in 2011. The former mayor, Baltasar Santos of the Popular Party, faces charges of misuse of public money, abusing his authority, and financial irregularities.

Santos wanted to create a network of caves that would serve as a tourist attraction. For centuries, people in the area have built cellars under their homes and farm buildings to store wine and olive oil, but officials say that most of the so-called caves under Navalcarnero were excavated by the council.

“It’s going to cost millions to put things right,” says Adell, pointing out that the affected area is criss-crossed with gas and water pipes, along with electric cabling. “One day there will be a spark and who knows what that could do,” he warns.

A block of granite next to the latest hole to appear in Navalcarnero.
A block of granite next to the latest hole to appear in Navalcarnero.

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